How to celebrate milestones while social distancing, according to public health and medical experts
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Millions of people are finding new ways to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, weddings, graduations, and other milestones in the era of social distancing.
Take this example of two friends: When the global pandemic made Hannah Wilson’s dream of walking across the stage at graduation impossible, Ashayla Blakely started brainstorming.
“She was trying to be optimistic about everything, but I knew deep down inside she was sad about it,” Blakely said. “I wanted her to know that her friends and family supported her no matter the circumstances.”
With the help of Wilson’s family and friends, Blakey organized a surprise Zoom party. After a great cheer of “Surprise!” loved ones went one by one, expressing their pride and happiness at Wilson’s accomplishments.
Celebrating in quarantine can be just as special with a little creativity and helpful supplies. To help you get started, Fortune asked public health and medical experts for their tips on how to stay safe while recognizing these special moments.
Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Hugh Mighty, dean of Howard University’s College of Medicine: “Virtual celebrations work. It takes a little planning, but start by inviting smaller numbers of people at a time. Give them a theme to follow if you have one. It is a good time also to celebrate your birthday over several days, that way you can have day one for family and day two for friends. You may find that you actually share more time with each person attending. This is a good time and way to connect with friends even if you have not seen them for a while. In the event that someone crashes the virtual party, you can always disinvite them by disconnecting them. It is truly your birthday.
“Virtual celebrations for younger children can be a challenge, but doable. First, remember that the younger the child, the less the attention span. A 15-minute birthday with a focused theme—construction, favorite animal, sport—may be good for the 4- to 5-year-old group. Get to the ‘Happy Birthday’ song quickly, do a short activity, and thank everyone. If you rotate the birthdays, there will be plenty of opportunities for parents to say hello and children to see their friends. For older children, there are more options, because of multi-person online games.
“For those who lack Internet connectivity, masks, distance, and limiting the size of the gathering is essential. Activities that encourage distancing and that can be done outdoors, such as kicking around a soccer ball or passing a football, would be preferable to actual games or tackling. Hand washing and avoiding face touching should be remembered.
“Eat with distancing in mind, use individual utensils, and don’t share containers. Prepare food in advance and make it easy to pick up. Sandwiches are better than serving food from a common container, for example.”
Dr. Norman Beatty, professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine: “Since social distancing is essential to fighting the spread of this virus, having a birthday party is nearly impossible to swallow. The reality of keeping a face covering on little ones—or even a teenager—and social distancing itself seems a bit challenging and unrealistic. One popular approach to safely celebrate someone’s birthday is to have friends and loved ones drive by your house with signs, sirens, and honking car horns. This is one simple way to show your support and celebrate with social distancing in mind. I know my daughter loved seeing her grandma and grandpa’s truck decorated in streamers, colorful flags, and even a unicorn (her favorite animal) as they drove by our home. Virtual hangouts using your favorite video-calling device can also be fun.”
Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of Healthcare Ready in Washington, D.C.: “My birthday was actually a couple of weeks ago on July 4. It is a bit different. One thing that I was able to do for both of my parents who both had birthdays as well and are quarantined in New York City: We were able to stagger balloon and gift deliveries, so that they were able to feel like they were kind of getting something every couple of hours to kind of keep things exciting. We did a Zoom party for my own birthday. It was a lot quieter, and I just had a great dinner at home. One thing I would recommend is to lean into some of the really cool and inexpensive services that are being offered now. There are things like a quarantine party in a box that allows you to decorate the space behind you and have a really cool Zoom party with a background. There are also services that make it very easy for you to send cute packages or cake to loved ones overnight. That allows you to still be able to express care without having to congregate.”
Dr. Lindsay Thompson, medical director of the Pediatric Research Hub at the University of Florida: “Overall, it is important to celebrate special moments during the pandemic, although these celebrations should be in a tempered format. If someone is in quarantine, however, they need to be completely separate. Online parties can be effective: Platforms like Zoom allow a ‘gallery’ view of friends and family and can make the birthday person feel special. Drive-by parades of cars with friends and family can also be a fabulous way to honor a person in quarantine.”
Dr. Robert Johnson, dean of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School: “We’ve been doing a lot of drive-by celebrations, especially for the seniors in our family. We’ve done—I’m sorry, I’m saying ‘we,’ but it’s really my wife, Maxine—we’ve done three or four of them, even some graduations. I belong to a family of organizers, so they sent out formal email invitations to everybody and signed people up to help.
“They pick a place for everyone to meet, like a fast-food parking lot. As each car arrives, we decorate them with balloons. Then, when the whole caravan is ready, we drive together to the house of the person we’re celebrating and honk. The one we just went to was actually a 50th anniversary celebration, and the couple came out on the porch to wave to everybody.
“I know that some are having celebrations in parks. It gets to be a little a little risky as far as social distancing goes.”
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